The American Robin Hood
"He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain."
Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882) was a young Confederate guerrilla accused of committing atrocities, then a robber of banks, stagecoaches and trains, and murderer. He was shot dead by a fellow member of his gang wanting fame and reward. He was possibly a psychopath, certainly a sociopath and racist (even by mid-nineteenth century standards), a proto-terrorist, and definitely a criminal.
At the same time Jesse James is a hero of the West, a kind of Robin Hood figure and martyr. Dashing and brave, he stood up for the small man and the South against Northern corporate interests and the railroads. He was unjustly hounded by the Chicago Pinkertons who brutally attacked his sainted mother’s home, maiming her and killing Jesse’s simple-minded brother.
Or so the legend goes. For Jesse James the legend is far better known than JW James the nasty little thief. Countless books, songs and movies have convinced generation after generation that Jesse James was a great figure of American history, someone to look up to and admire.
There is of course no doubt whatever on which side of this debate Hollywood stood. Recent depictions have redressed the balance a little. Colin Farrell in 2001 was no saint (the slogan of American Outlaws was ‘Bad is good again’) and Brad Pitt in 2007 in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was distinctly dangerous. However, even they were hardly dyed-in-the-wool racist psychopaths, and most film versions avoid the Civil War altogether (though there are exceptions). And for most of cinematic history the various Jesses were dashing, spotless heroes.
And it started right from the very first depiction of Jesse, in silent movies. There were three in the 1920s.
Jesse James Under the Black Flag
Jesse James Under the Black Flag in 1921 was a silent in which Jesse E. James, known as Jesse James Jr. (1875 – 1951), starred as his father. Jesse James Jr. was an interesting character. The E in his name was for John Newman Edwards, the Missouri journalist and champion of the outlaw. In his youth Jesse Jr. went by the name of Edwards in order to conceal his identity but later on the name Jesse James became more attractive and valuable. He studied law and owned a pawnshop in Kansas City, practicing law there. In 1898 JJ Jr. was arrested and stood trial for train robbery. Exciting stuff. But he was acquitted. He moved to California in the 1920s and ran the ‘Jesse James Inn’.
Jesse James Jr.
He appeared in and produced two 1921 films with his sister Mary: Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw. The only extant version (as far as we know) is an edited 1930 release of the two films, under the title Jesse James Under the Black Flag, with narration taking the place of most of the original inter-titles, plus musical accompaniment and sound effects. It lasts 69 minutes. Each of the two original films has been shortened to approximately half its original length.
Today, it’s only watchable as an historical document. As a Western movie, it’s pretty hard going. Partly this is because of the narration, which is plodding, dull, and badly delivered by someone who is far from a professional. As it accompanies the action throughout, it becomes fairly tiresome by the end.
Jesse Jr. is hardly believable as Jesse Sr. He was certainly no actor and he was in his rather podgy late forties at the time, so not terribly convincing as a seventeen-year-old guerrilla.
Intro text on screen announces that we are about to see:
Jesse James Jr.
In an authentic life of his father
Under the Black Flag
And as the most hunted outlaw in American History.
We are then told that it will be:
A play based upon Facts [I notice Facts has a capital letter; I don’t know if that’s significant]
Written and Directed by
Franklin B Coates
With the valuable assistance of
Jesse James Jr.
Harvey C Hoffman
And William Grimes
[We are not told who Messrs. Hoffman and Grimes are or what they contributed]
Then The Ballad of Jesse James is heard, with some of the lyrics on screen.
We open with Jesse Jr. in his very palatial home in California, where he is visited by writer Franklin B Coates (played by himself) who has come to discuss the final chapter of Jesse’s book about his father. We meet also “Mrs. Jesse James Jr.”, also played by herself, but only in a walk-on and then immediately walk-off part.
At the same time, Jesse Jr.’s daughter Lucille (Diana Reed) has fallen for a handsome aviator, Robert Standing (Jack Neil), who asks dad for her hand in marriage. Jesse says that Bob must read the book first, to understand who her grandfather was, and if he still wants to propose afterwards, he can have her hand. So he starts leafing through the pages, the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we are in Civil War Missouri with a 17-year-old Jesse.
Harry Hall as "Charles William Quantrell", presumably William Clarke Quantrill
Jesse is joining up with “Charles William Quantrell” (Harry Hall). He shows Quantrell the scars on his breast where Federal soldiers have tortured him and he swears allegiance to the black flag. Right from the outset it is clear that the “Federals”, as they are called, are the treacherous atrocity-mongers and the guerrillas are noble and true. The pedantic voiceover fellow tells us that “Federal soldiers burned homes, and Missouri settlers organized under the able leadership of Charles Quantrell.” Bill Anderson (FG McCabe) appears but there is no ‘Bloody’ before his name and he is a brave ally of Jesse’s.
Harry Hoffman as Cole Younger
We see the family of Cole Younger (Harry Hoffman) driven from their home and their farm burned. Cole, impotent to stop it, also joins Quantrell. They make a raid on Plattsburg and ride in, wasting all their ammunition by shooting their pistols in the air, and the Federals, with good cover and rifles, do not hit a single one. “Jesse James risks his life to save his pal,” we are told. Later, Jesse is shot from ambush and badly wounded, and goes home to his ma to be nursed.
General Order No. 11 is highlighted as a great injustice. It’s a bowdlerized version and though the camera zooms in on it the print is anyway such now that you can’t read it, so you have to know. It concentrates on the first part:
All persons living in Jackson, Cass, and Bates counties, Missouri, and in that part of Vernon included in this district, except those living within one mile of the limits of Independence, Hickman's Mills, Pleasant Hill, and Harrisonville, and except those in that part of Kaw Township, Jackson County, north of Brush Creek and west of Big Blue, are hereby ordered to remove from their present places of residence within fifteen days from the date hereof.
Those who within that time establish their loyalty to the satisfaction of the commanding officer of the military station near their present place of residence will receive from him a certificate stating the fact of their loyalty, and the names of the witnesses by whom it can be shown. All who receive such certificates will be permitted to remove to any military station in this district, or to any part of the State of Kansas, except the counties of the eastern border of the State. All others shall remove out of the district. Officers commanding companies and detachments serving in the counties named will see that this paragraph is promptly obeyed.
So we see families packing miserably and leaving.
There’s an evil half-breed, Murdock (obviously the bad guy would be a half-breed) who is expelled by Quantrell for being a half-breed and after the war takes up bank and train robbing, pretending to be Jesse. A woman train passenger does not believe Murdock: “It could not be Jesse James because he would never insult a lady", she tells a companion. Naturally, Jesse is entirely innocent and only wants to be a “useful and law-abiding citizen”. Still, there are wanted posters out for him.
The end of Murdock
He is nearly captured when he goes on a heroic mission to a neighboring farmhouse to fetch the “dolly” of a sick baby. Luckily, he evades capture and brings the doll safely back to the ailing child, who then duly recovers. Phew.
It really is a low trick by Murdock to pretend to be Jesse but he is soon unmasked and “hanged from the highest tree”, so that’s alright. He was only a half-breed anyway.
There’s a dance and an overlong rodeo (you get the impression that they wanted to use up the footage) and they both look rather silly with the speeded-up film of the day.
The Pinkertons bomb the James place and Ma James is wounded and Jesse’s poor little half-brother slain.
It’s only now, when he is proved to be the upright citizen he always was, that Jesse proposes to Zee Mimms. Then all rather suddenly they are married, have two children (Jesse Jr. looks about ten) and live a happy domestic existence.
Then we get the raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Now, so far throughout the story, both in the war and afterwards, Jesse has been nothing but a shining hero, gallantly saving friends and enemies alike (he helps a Pinkerton detective out of a ditch) and by no means guilty of any banditry whatsoever, perish the thought. Yet suddenly, and with no explanation, he, Frank (uncredited actor) and the Youngers try to rob the bank in Northfield but are expected there and driven off. Why is that? We are not told. Anyway, they get away, though the Youngers are taken after a valiant and bloody gunfight.
Frank James (uncredited actor) at Northfield
In the final reel, the Ford brothers arrive and are trusted by Jesse (though not by Zee), Jesse straightens the famous picture and Bob Ford shoots him in the back with a pistol Jesse had given him as a present. Thus died “an American Robin Hood”, says the narrator.
Bob Ford, Charlie Ford and Mr. Howard
The movie ends with bad grammar as Standing reads the final words of Coates’s book which say that Jesse could not live “in a world which belongs to you and I.”
Well, e-pards, it really is the most dreadful tripe.
In fact, it’s one of the worst Westerns I’ve seen.
Still, it’s a fascinating historical document and important to see if you are a serious Western buff (and if you aren’t, why are you reading this blog?)
The other silent movie of the 1920s which featured Jesse James starred Fred Thomson as the outlaw in the 1927 Jesse James. This Paramount Jesse was again bold and true. Directed by actor Lloyd Ingraham (162 Westerns!) and written by Fred’s wife Frances Marion, it had Nora Lane as Zee, Mary Carr as the redoubtable Mrs. James-Samuel and James Pierce as Frank. I’m afraid I haven’t seen this silent. Both IMDb and Lost Film Files have this movie as being lost although silentera.com states that a print exists. I hope it does. Jesse E James is billed as “technical advisor”.
When I’m a millionaire I’ll have agents scouring the globe for a print and my own private movie theater where I shall watch it and gloat and not invite you.